Charles Wheelan, Instructor in the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy StudiesBy Steve Koppes
Charles Wheelan is the man with the anti-Midas touch.
“If he touched gold he would turn it to life,” wrote Princeton University professor Burton Malkiel in the foreword to Wheelan’s book Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science, published in 2002.
It appears that Wheelan applies the same touch to his University courses. Though he became a Lecturer in the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies only last year, students in his Analyzing and Commun- icating Policy course already have felt his energizing anti-Midas touch. For one class period each Fall and Spring Quarter, the students in this course find themselves seated in the studios of WBEZ-FM at Navy Pier, instead of the long, narrow confines of the Woodlawn Room in the 1155 Building on campus.
WBEZ is familiar territory for Wheelan. He is a long-time contributor both to WBEZ’s 848 public affairs program and to The Motley Fool, a nationally syndicated program on National Public Radio covering finance, economics and business.
But students do the talking on these WBEZ field trips, not Wheelan, during an off-the-air version of 848 that culminates their group projects. “They have to come up with some policy recommendation,” Wheelan says. “It could be anything from changing Illinois recycling law to creating a global fund to providing an incentive for the creation of a malaria vaccine.”
After the students have formulated their policy recommendation, “then they have to sell it. They’ve got to do a press release. They’ve got to do talking points. They’ve got to do an op-ed,” Wheelan says. And the student spokesmen for their respective groups also field questions from 848 host Steve Edwards, just as if they were really appearing on his show to propose their plans.
It is fun, but it also shows the students there is more to a good policy recommendation than a good idea, Wheelan says. “It’s not really worth anything if they don’t go out and sell it and explain it cogently.”
Wheelan, who also teaches Analysis of Regional Policy, says he has been impressed by the idealism and ability of Harris School students.
“I don’t know that they fully appreciate how valued the skills they have are going to be,” he says. They will be entering a job market that is less well defined than that for graduates of business or law schools, so it requires more patience. “It takes longer for people to find the right places, probably because they’re going all over the place. To non-profits, to international institutions, to private banks, what have you,” he says.
Wheelan earned his own Ph.D. from the Harris School in 1998. He was the Midwest correspondent for The Economist from 1997 until 2002, a position he will again fill during the summer. Then he became director of policy and communications for Chicago Metropolis 2020, a business-sponsored not-for-profit group that conducts long-range planning for the region. Wheelan also is writing a textbook, An Introduction to Public Policy.
Policy seems to be the theme that runs throughout Wheelan’s career. Even as a practicing journalist and former adjunct lecturer at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, he taught policy.
“I could probably be at a veterinary school and I’d somehow be teaching about policy,” he jokes.